Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sprout & pomegranate pilaff

Sprout & Pomegranate Pilaff
I am not a sprout lover.  Over-boiled, cabbagey, dull little bullets are really not my thing, but a bag of them turned up in my vegetable box this week and I was determined to make something tasty with them.

The internet yielded some interesting recipes, all claiming to convert sprout-haters to sprout-o-philes in the blink of an eye.  Heidi Swanson's recipe involved both frying and cheese, which seemed like it could be promising.  I decided to fry off the sprouts til golden as Heidi does, and then add soy sauce to the hot pan, giving a salty intensity to the earthy veg.  I then stirred them through a simple rice pilaff with some pomegranate seeds for juice and colour.  A hefty dusting with grated parmesan and I was converted. 

Sprout & pomegranate pilaff (serves 1)


12 small sprouts, washed, ends trimmed and any grotty outer leaves removed
1 tbsp olive oil
65ml brown rice, measured in a jug or cup (I like Tilda wholegrain Basmati)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
130ml stock
1 tbsp soy sauce
A handful of pomegranate seeds
Grated parmesan, to taste


1. Halve the sprouts and toss in the olive oil.
2. Heat the vegetable oil in a large saucepan.  When hot, add the rice and stir around until you start to hear it pop.
3. Add the stock to the rice.  Bring up to a simmer, cover the saucepan with a teatowel and then the lid.  Cook for 15mins without opening the lid to peek!  If lots of steam is coming out, turn the heat down.
4. Heat a frying pan and when hot, add the oiled sprout halves to the pan, flat side down.  Put a lid over the frying pan so that the sprouts steam in their own juices for around 5 minutses.
5. Once the sprouts are steamed, take the lid off the frying pan and stir them around to get some browned crispiness on the rounded sides too.  Splash over the soy sauce.  Leave to rest in the hot pan until the rice is cooked.
6. Stir the sprouts and pomegranate seeds through the rice.  Season and add parmesan.

It also occurred to me that this might be nice with walnuts or toasted pine nuts sprinkled through.  Who knew sprouts could be so tasty?  Sign me up to Sprout-a-holics Anonymous!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

How to make the perfect meringue

What makes a perfect meringue?  In my view, it's a light crispy shell leading to a chewy, teeth-sticking interior.  If it can look pretty too, then that's a bonus.  Meringues are great for pavlovas, or just to ladle fruit over, and are the perfect way to use up any left over egg whites that you might have hanging around after making custard or mayonnaise from the yolks.

Meringues are not difficult to make and these home made beauties knock spots off those miserable little nests that you get from the supermarket.  Here are my top three tips for getting perfect meringues.

1.  Weigh your egg whites.  Eggs are all different sizes so it's best to go by weight rather than number. 

2. Leave the oven door ajar.  With electric ovens, moisture can build up inside and stop your meringues from drying out beautifully.  Bea (from Bea's of Bloomsbury) says the best way to get a professional finish at home is to wedge your oven door ajar with a wooden spoon.

3. Give it time.  The best meringues are cooked long and slow, on a low heat.
Gooey meringues

Meringues (makes two large meringues)

I go by the Ottolenghi method of heating the sugar in the oven first.  It's easy to scale this recipe up or down as required, just weigh your egg whites and use double the amount of caster sugar.  Some people like to add vinegar or cornflour, but I don't find it necessary.


60g egg whites (approx 2 egg whites)
120g caster sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 200c.
2. Line a baking tray with baking parchment and spread the sugar evenly on it.
3. Put the sugar in the oven for 7-8 minutes, until it just starts to melt around the edges.
4. When the sugar is almost ready, put the egg whites into a food mixer and whisk until they start to get frothy. 
5. Slowly add the hot sugar to the egg whites.  Put the mixer speed to the max and let it whisk until cool.  This takes about 10 minutes and when it's ready the mixture should hold stiff peaks.  Meanwhile, turn the oven down to 110c.
6. Shape the semi-cooked meringues into large balls on another tray lined with baking parchment.  I did this with two large spoons.
7. Pop into the oven for 2 hours.

This is the recipe for a plain meringue, but why stop there?  You could swirl in a fruit coulis before baking, roll the meringues in crushed nuts or stir in some rosewater.  These meringues will last a couple of days in an airtight container.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cooking live at the Good Food Show

The view from the stage
The view from the stage

I trekked up to Birmingham for the Good Food Show last week, and spent the morning navigating the hungry hordes before having a delicious three course VIP lunch with the Miele crowd.  After a quick meet and greet with the Hairy Bikers, we were whisked off for a cookery experience with Mark Lloyd, head chef at The Cleave Inn.  What Miele had neglected to tell us was that the "experience" would be on stage in front of a live audience!  We put on our best smiles and headed for the stage.

The lady from Miele gives a helping hand to Rejina and me

We cooked a delicious venision toad (or should that be bambi?) in the hole,with chilli onion jam and steamed broccoli. It was a great opportunity to try out the Miele kit and razor sharp Kin knives.  We then sat down to lunch number two.  Gastrogeek and I began to wish we hadn't tucked in quite so greedily to dessert earlier...

Toad in the hole
The finished product

If you want to try one of Miele's cookery experiences for yourself, they have very generously donated two tickets to the Blaggers' Banquet auction, so get over there and get bidding!

Finally, we were treated to one of Gordon Ramsay's performances in the Supertheatre, full of the usual bravado and a rather tasty looking butterscotch & apple dessert made by Mark Sargeant.  This time two years ago I was telling you about Tearamisu inspired by Gordon at the GFS.

Then it was just a last round of the show stalls before making the drive home.  Best buy of the day was Sheep Dip whisky from The Spencerfield Spirit Company.  I was originally tempted to the stand by their Pig's Nose whisky, but was persuaded by the lovely Alex Nichol that my hubby would probably prefer Sheep Dip, given his taste for the peatier end of the scale.  The name comes from the sheep dip barrels that farmers used to hide their moonshine whisky in.

All in all, a great day out, although do try to go on a weekday as even on a Thursday the ravenous crowds were heaving!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hot Boozy Chocolate - domestic sluttery guest post

I am a huge Domestic Sluttery fan, so when they asked me for a guest post I couldn't resist.  Especially as it gave me the chance to develop (or should I say devour) a deliciously boozy hot choco-cocktail!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Blaggers Banquet - prep talk

The blogosphere has been buzzing with Blaggers' Banquet talk lately.  In case you missed it, last Sunday 50 food and wine bloggers took over Hawksmoor restaurant in London in a huge charity blogging event.  We blagged and blagged til our slippery tongues could blag no more.  All the ingredients for the dinner, the wine, the goodie bags and a fantastic selection of auction prizes were blagged from our PR contacts.  We then sold tickets, all in aid of Action Against Hunger.

After a couple of weeks gathering support from our very generous contacts, the big day finally came.  I arrived bright and early at Hawksmoor, to find the place full - of food, bloggers and wine.  Vegetables and fruit needed sorting, the menu needed last minute tweaks to accommodate ingredients we thought we had, goody bags needed stuffing and auction prizes sorting.
The vegetable spread from Riverford was particularly impressive, if muddy, and I spent part of the morning dicing with death (or at least nicked fingers) making parsnip crisps on the mandoline.

Goody bags were very good indeed - absolutely packed with treats generously provided by our PR pals.

Lizzie (or @Hollowlegs) and I will be forever after known as the Greasy Gougeres Girls, after a slightly disturbing and slippery encounter with a choux-filled cheesy pastry bag.

Denise and Billy kept a close eye (or should that be nose?) on the wine.

I was gutted to have to go home before the event really kicked off, but from the photos (all taken by @Foodbymark), I can rest safe in the thought that the diners all had a great time.

The fun doesn't stop there though.  Our auction, with some truly fantastic prizes like tasting menus, chocolate tastings and more, is currently running on Ebay and more prizes will be drip-fed as the weeks go on.  The perfect place for a foodie friend's Christmas present, or maybe just a treat for yourself!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Westerly, Reigate

Westerly mackerel

The Westerly is a bit of a local favourite. With a bib gourmand under its belt since 2008, it is a modern British bistro run by husband and wife team Jon and Cynthia Coomb.

Praise has been heaped on the Westerly since it opened in 2007, with even Jay Rayner and Simon Majumdar trekking down from London to review it.

Jay described it as “stunning” while Simon pronounced it “almost flawless”.  And I am lucky enough to live just 5 minutes down the road from it.

Of course this wasn't the first time I had been to The Westerly. I'd just always been too lazy to blog about it, preferring to keep relaxed Surrey food to myself and leave the photo snapping and criticism for nights out at the big boys in London.

But, I decided, the time had come. Starting to feel a bit jaded with all the faddy, pop up, underground, “latest concept” new openings in the big smoke, it was quite a revelation to be tucking into honest, non-fancy but very, very good food.

It was a horrible rainy night outside, but as we entered the cosy dining room we felt immediately at home.

I sipped on my apertif of prosecco with pomegranate and perused the menu. There's always a variation of pig's head croquette, and tonight was no exception, but I decided to try something I wouldn't normally have. I went for mackerel with granny smith apple and curry oil. The presentation was simple, the mackerel smokey and rich, with the apple giving a tart sweetness and the curry oil adding some heat to this perfectly rounded dish.

Westerly confit duck

The main course was more problematic, leaving me stumped as to whether to have duck or crisp belly of pork. On Cynthia's advice, I went for the duck confit and roast magret with potatoes and chorizo. I wasn't convinced about the chorizo-duck combination, but the chorizo was scarce enough for it not to be a worry. The confit leg was absolute perfection – golden crispy skin and succulent meat that fell off the bone at the mere thought of eating it. The magret was pink and tasty, and it was all served in an earthily savoury jus. The roast rump of lamb with pesto and gnocchi was also pronounced a success by my husband.

Sherry & raisin jelly

Pudding was the real climax of the evening though, and The Westerly will probably take prime position on the leaderboard in Pudding of the Year, so far. While my hubby went for the Westerly's old faithful, chocolate malt ice cream with a peanut butter cookie, I tried a new addition to the menu. The Pedro Ximenez and raisin jelly with burnt almond cream was true dessert genius. It came served with a buttery almond biscuit, wrapped up in waxed paper, which I greedily dipped into the topping. The jelly was studded with huge, plump, sherry-soaked raisins which tempered perfectly with the sweet foamy cream. Heaven.

Apart from the great food there are several other lovely things about The Westerly. They serve a good selection of wines in carafes of 350ml and 500ml, plus lovely dessert wines by the glass. They also do an excellent line in hot cocktails (also known as boozy coffee / hot chocolate). I finished my evening off with a hot chocolate with cognac, which set me up for a great night's sleep.

The bill came to just under £100 for two, excluding service but including two apertifs, one 500ml carafe of pinot noir, two glasses of dessert wine, one coffee and one hot chocolate with cognac.

The Westerly
2-4 London Road, Regiate, Surrey RH2 9AN
01737 222733

Westerly hot chocolate

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Blaggers' Banquet!

On November 15th, London's Food & Drink Bloggers will be taking over Hawksmoor, the revered steakhouse in Liverpool St, for the Blaggers’ Banquet.  The Blaggers’ Banquet will be an exciting 5 course dinner with matched drinks, created entirely by the bloggers, and using only food and drink that we have blagged. All proceeds will go to Action Against Hunger.

Bloggers will be the cooks and the sommeliers, front of house and the prep folk, the kitchen porters and the cleaner uppers. We’ll staff the bar, make the cocktails and make the coffee, and best of all diners can review us when we are done. 

The Banquet meu details will be revealed on the night, expect 5 lovely courses with drinks and lots of fun.  I'm on the canapes section, so watch out for those!

Buy your tickets here: Tickets

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fernandez & Leluu

F&L soup
Underground restaurants are definitely the latest big thing, although the trend actually hit British shores over 9 months ago when the mysterious MsMarmiteLover started her supper club in Kilburn. The scene seems to have really captured the media's imagination recently. Whether it be incompetent restauranteurs making a meal of it in their own homes or in front of Raymond Blanc, duff amateur cooking seems to be too good a TV opportunity to pass up. But what would be the reality of underground dining - great food at bargain prices in a relaxed environment or incompetent fame-seekers jumping on the latest bandwagon?

Deciding we had gone long enough without trying this new craze, and with some trepidation after watching last week's The Restaurant, we set off on the journey from rural Surrey to trendy Hackney.

Fernandez & Leluu is run by Uyen and Simon from a secret location about a mile from Bethnal Green tube. As we arrived at 7.30, our coats were taken by the smiley Uyen, we were plied with wine and shown to our table. There were twenty of us in the room, which was decked out beautifully with twinkly little tealights, charmingly mismatched crockery and flowers.

At 8pm we started our 6 courses with a hot and sour soup of catfish, tomato and pineapple. Uyen warned us to watch the bones, which was certainly good advice. The soup was fragrant and light, with lashings of coriander.  We settled in, feeling relieved that Simon obviously could cook.

Terriyaki frogs legs came with a shot of basil seed in sugar water (frog spawn). The meat was perfectly tender and lightly marinaded in a sticky umami-rich coating. The frog spawn was all looks and no flavour, but we appreciated the halloweeny touch.
F&L frog legs
It was now 9.30, and we were served with beautifully presented spring rolls, which were quite simply the best I have ever had. Apparently the virtuous Simon and Uyen had been up til 1.30am the previous night making them, and their efforts had clearly paid off. The wrappings were crisp and the interior was absolutely stuffed with sweet prawns, pork, black fungus and glass noodles.

F&L spring rolls

Next was tuna sashimi, served with chips in a witty take on the British classic. The fish was fantastic quality, served in juicy cubes with a light soy marinade. The chips were Hind's Head worthy, well seasoned and perfectly crispy.

F&L sashimi & chips

Sashimi swallowed, and we were served with some delicious seared beef and sugarsnap peas.  The meat was top quality and melted in the mouth.
F&L beef

By 11pm we were tucking into red chicken & squash curry with rice - this was less spectacular but still very tasty. So tasty in fact, that I forgot to take a photo until I had almost finished!

F&L remainder of curry

F&L waitress & green tea

We finally finished course number six, green tea ice cream with a crunchy ginger shortbread, at 12.20am, 5 hours after we had arrived. Fernandez & Leluu is by no means fast food, so be prepared to take your time (and plan your transport accordingly). The quality of cooking is fantastic though, and as they say, good things come to those who wait.

As it was we hailed a cab to Victoria, ran for the 1am train and were safely back to the 'burbs and tucked up in bed by 2am. Fernandez & Leluu has certainly won me over to underground dining, and if only I lived a little closer I would definitely be a regular.

Fernandez & Leluu
Somewhere in Hackney

Suggested donation £30

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gourmet San

Gourmet San

Gourmet San is the stuff of foodie legend. World class szechuan cuisine? Check. Gritty East London location? Check. Huge portions? Check. Rock bottom prices? Check.

After a disappointing time at Polpo, it was a relief to find that budget food in London can be tasty and great value. Gourmet San is clean and simple, with service swift and as friendly as could be expected with little language in common. But the food, oh the food!

The highlight had to be the heap of crab studded with chillies and szechuan peppercorns. It was a messy business (and seemingly impossible with chopsticks), but the spicy white meat that we chewed, sucked and slurped out of the shells was worth the effort.

Crab in hot spicy sauce

Old Place Sauteed Crab in Hot Spicy Sauce £12

The sauteed shredded beef was a star anise infused delight, generously sized and bursting with tongue-tingling chunks of hot green chilli.

Beef and spinach
Sauteed Shredded Beef Fillet with Hot Pepper £7
Fried Spinach in Garlic Sauce £7 (in background)

Pig tendons (a random choice) were more problematic, although what meat I could detach from the sticky lumps of bone was savoury and gelatinous. Don't attempt these with chopsticks either, especially if you're wearing a white shirt.

Pig tendons
Pig's Tendon with Spicy Salt £7

The vegetarian dishes were also successful. We tried the tofu with chives and bean sprouts, not as spicy as some of the other dishes but very moreish. Spinach was served in the sort of pungent sauce that leaves you still garlicky 48 hours later.

Chives & beansprouts with tofu
Sauteed Hotbed Chives & Bean Sprouts with Dried Tofu £7

Rice never arrived, but to be honest we didn't care and left feeling well fed and looking forward to our next visit. The whole lot came in at £55 for four, including 4 beers and a pot of green tea.

Gourmet San
261 Bethnal Green Road, London E2 6AH
020 7729 8388
Gourmet San on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 2, 2009

Gordon Ramsay's World Kitchen

Gordon Ramsay's latest book, launched to coincide with the new series of The F Word, is a whistlestop tour of ten of the world's cuisines.  The book starts in France (of course) and ends in the USA, via the Middle East, Thailand, China, India, Spain, Italy, Greece and Britain.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the latest output from the GR marketing machine, 10 cuisines in 100 recipes is hardly in depth, but as I read on I realised there was a lot of technical information in the book and the techniques were clearly explained.

The recipes are simple, but not simplistic, which makes this book perfect for either a keen beginner or a more experienced cook who wants to expand their repertoire.  Gordon wants us to try souffle, make our own dim sum wrappers and blend Thai curry paste.  These aren't quick after-work suppers, but labours of love for a Sunday afternoon.
I tried three recipes from the book, purposely avoiding the European cuisines that Gordon is typically associated with.  The US rump steak with beer and onion gravy was simple and full of flavour, the sesame ice cream was outstandingly nutty and moreish (the remainder is in my freezer, awaiting a chocolate fondant to be paired with) and the red braised pork belly was time consuming but delicious, with a spicy, savoury kick.

Of course, any book like this is never going to be specialised, but if you're intimidated by the fad for weighty, specialised tomes like the Silver Spoon and you're in a bit of a cooking rut, this could be the book for you.  I also think it would be great for dinner party ideas, as each section has a couple of recipes you could use for a starter, a main and a dessert.

In World Kitchen, Gordon lets you try a little bit of everything, and to be honest, when the recipes taste this good you can't really complain. 
GR's red braised pork
My attempt at Red Braised Pork

Gordon Ramsay's World Kitchen is published by Quadrille and costs £20. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cupcake decorating at Bea's of Bloomsbury


What makes a great cupcake? Pink glitter and spangles or great-tasting all-natural ingredients? If you ask Bea, she'd say the latter. Bea's of Bloomsbury is built around the principle of taste over looks, although the cupcakes (just one of the many delicious treats Bea sells in her coffee & cake place near Chancery Lane) look pretty good to me.

Last Thursday I tried a cupcake decorating class at Bea's. I'm pretty comfortable with making cakes but had never really got the hang of piping at home, finding it difficult to master the technique from following a book. Under Bea's watchful eye though, it all became clear.

We started by learning to make Italian buttercream - a cooked-meringue-based frosting that can be flavoured or coloured any way you like. It's lighter than the traditional American buttercream (made from icing sugar and butter), and easier to pipe. We also learned the correct technique to make a beautifully shiny ganache from chocolate and cream. While the frosting was whisking we tried piping intricate liquid chocolate motifs using handmade parchment piping bags. Bea was there to give helpful hints and turn my dyslexic toddler's handwriting into (almost) perfect swirls and letters.

We then moved on to pipe the buttercream or ganache onto our ready-made cakes to give that professional finish. It was surprisingly quick and easy once we got the hang of it and we had 24 cupcakes (included in the price of the class) finished in no time.

Frosting mastered, we moved on to sugarpaste flowers. Even though Bea prefers fruit to day-glo spangles, she did indulge us with a treasure trove of edible lustre and glitter. Again, I was surprised by how easy it was to get a professional finish with the right tools. You can see my efforts above.

For the grand finale, we were let loose on our cakes to decorate them any way we liked. Then, cupcakes boxed up and heads brimming with new ideas we went home with our creations. I took mine into work the next day and was told I was in the wrong job (in a good way, I think....)

Bea's cupcake decorating classes cost £100 for two hours tuition.

She is running halloween cupcake decorating classes and has a couple of spaces left for Thursday 29th October.  Maybe you could make some treats like these?
Beas ghost cupcakes

Bea's of Bloomsbury
44 Theobald's Rd, London, WC1X 8NW
020 7242 8330

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

London Restaurant Festival - Gourmet Odyssey

After the recent excesses of London Restaurant Festival, the blogosphere has been buzzing with reviews of Koffman’s pop-up restaurant on the roof at Selfridges. However, your faithful correspondent here at Princess Towers decided to investigate the Gourmet Odyssey instead (or rather, couldn't get a table at Koffman's).

The Odyssey consisted of a huge blow-out Michelin starred lunch, with each course at a different restaurant and intra-course transfer by jolly red double-decker. A great opportunity to try some new places and some oldies-but-goodies. Maybe it would even help to satisfy my purse-intensive restaurant obsession by dining at three in one day? It was worth a try.

We started with champagne at the Met Bar, that somewhat underwhelming nightspot beloved of the Gallaghers et al in the brit-pop era. It was interesting mix of people, mostly well-to-do flash types, a few younger couples and a chap in shorts and trainers who seemed blissfully unaware of his level of underdress. We were tagged, in pink naturally, by our host/nanny/herder Caz, so as not to get confused with one of the other groups and miss our bus. The poor girl looked a bit harassed, and I don’t blame her as the free-flowing Mumm top-ups meant that I for one was pretty tipsy before we even started.

Nobu lobster

Champagne duly quaffed, we tripped upstairs to Nobu, the first European offshoot in this forever growing Japanese restaurant group. The swish Nobu lunching regulars looked slightly disturbed to see such a motley crew of foodies traipsing in, but soon got back to their sashimi as we were safely tucked away in the canteen, ahem, I mean private dining room.

Nobu tuna

The room was a bit sparse, maybe minimalist is the term, but it was certainly large. Our group of eighty or so was seated at two long tables where we tried a trio of Nobu’s best-selling dishes - Lobster Ceviche, Salmon Sashimi Salad with Matsuhisa dressing and Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno. I can see why celebs like to dine here - it tastes healthy and it is genuinely delicious, albeit in a light, fresh and subtle way. Friendly on the palate and friendly on the waistline. My favourite dish was the salmon, tender, luscious and served in a gorgeous sesame sludge that was infuriatingly difficult to mop up with chopsticks. No wonder these girls stay thin.

Nobu salmon

And then we were off, herded from our seats and downstairs to the bus, with some big grins from the lovely staff on the way. A quick trundle through Mayfair and we were at our main course destination.

The Square couldn’t have been more different from Nobu. We had been there before (and loved it) but wondered whether the private dining would be big enough. It obviously wasn’t, as the fabulous staff seamlessly wafted us into tables of twos or fours, depending on how many tickets had been booked together. This was nice, a true 2* experience (I have never been hugely into sharing a table with strangers), and quite an achievement under the circumstances too.

Seated in prime position, we pounced on the bread like wolves, the hunger really kicking in now after our fishy sliver of a starter. It didn’t disappoint. White was crisp and pointy with a fluffy interior. Brown was hefty and hearty. Butter was perfect.

Square mallard

Fay Maschler of the Evening Standard was our host for this course, a rich, decadent and autumnal French dish of wild mallard served two ways - pan fried breast and a pie (or should that be a pastie?) of rich, dark, slow cooked leg with port and raisins, all served with pumpkin and chestnuts.

Our high expectations of The Square were fully met, resulting in an impromptu (and somewhat alcohol fuelled) dash to the front desk by me to make a dinner reservation for December. Phil Howard worked the tables, although he didn’t get round to us (maybe next time?). He obviously had huge passion for the food and quite right too as it was sheer perfection in duck form.

Main course over and visions of Phil's glorious raspberry souffle came to mind. We really didn’t want to leave, but leave we had to. Back on the bus, next stop The Greenhouse.

The Greenhouse is tucked away in a Mayfair mews that was too tight for our bus. It’s one of those places like Roussillon that I had heard of but never got round to visiting. It really was like a greenhouse, all subterranean, moist and leafy. And, well, green.

The dish was described as “Carré Dubuffet” Chocolate Biscuit and Vanilla Ice Cream. Not the most exciting of desserts we thought, but that was until we saw the plates.

Greenhouse choc ice cream

The “biscuit” was a triumph - a sort of brownie, mousse, tuile combination that managed to be rich and chocolatey and moist and gooey and crisp all at the same time. Here we were seated at a table of four, more civilised than Nobu but more sociable than The Square. We were paired with a lovely couple from Cambridge who obviously knew their restaurants and made great foodie dinner companions.

And so we came to the end, back on the bus to the Met Bar for a final bellini and some Stone Roses nostalgia. Then we teetered home, feeling slightly disorientated by the large amount of alcohol and food consumed in broad daylight and hoping that we wouldn't fall asleep on the train home.

The Gourmet Odyssey was a fabulous experience and, although expensive at £130 for lunch, it gave us a great introduction to some restaurants that we otherwise might not have tried. It wasn't a typical Michelin star experience due to the logistics of herding such a huge group around, but all things considered, it was a pretty slick operation and we left with our tummies full, our palates titillated and our minds brimming with new ideas.

And as for kicking my restaurant habit? Not a chance. We now have reservations at Nobu, The Square and The Greenhouse to look forward to later in the year…

Nobu, 19 Old Park Lane, Mayfair, London W1K 1LB
The Square, 6-10 Bruton Street, Mayfair, London W1J 6PU
The Greenhouse, 27a Hays Mews, Mayfair, London W1J 5NX

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Plum jam with star anise & cinnamon

Plum jam

It's autumn, and with leaves falling from the trees and the nights drawing in I felt compelled to spend a few hours over the stove, stirring something sweet and comforting.  Jam is pretty easy to make - in this case you just take equal quantities of plums and sugar, and optionally jazz it up with some spices. 

I used about 10 plums and filled two 500g Le Parfait jars, with a bit left over to be eaten that afternoon.

Jam keeps up to two years in a sterilised jar, if you don't know how to do this then read on...

Plum jam with star anise & cinnamon


800g plums, (weight without stones - about 10 plums)
800g caster sugar
2 star anise
1 tsp ground cinnamon

1. Wash, quarter and stone the plums.
2. Toss the plums with the sugar and cinnamon until thoroughly coated.  Leave for a couple of hours.  This isn't essential but does help to draw out the juices and make the jam quicker to cook.  You could always do this the night before and leave them overnight.
3. Preheat the oven to 140C/275F/Gas 1.
4. Put the plum mix into a saucepan with the star anise and heat gently until the sugar has all dissolved.  Once this has happened you can bring the jam to the boil.
5. Once the jam has reached setting point, decant into the sterilised jars and close the lids while the jam is still hot.  Setting point is at 105°C/220°F, so go by your sugar thermometer if you have one.  Alternatively, you can test the jam by putting a drop onto a cold plate and pushing with your finger to see if it wrinkles - if it does, you're done.

Why not try substituting some vanilla seeds or ground cardomom for the cinnamon and anise?  Or you could try splitting the plum stones and adding the kernels for an almondy flavour (although I must confess I didn't have much success with the splitting).

The Princess

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Polpo, Soho - a bit of a no-no

The occasion: the award ceremony to distribute prizes from a disastrous food quiz way back in February; the attendees: Helen of Food Stories, Chris of Cheese and Biscuits, Su Lin of Tamarind & Thyme and yours truly; the venue: Polpo, the latest hot "Venetian tapas" restaurant opening in Soho.

While Venice isn't exactly known for its food, our expectations of Polpo were high after its comprehensive media coverage and significant twitter-hype. The restaurant had already achieved 4/5 in Time Out and 3/5 in the Metro, always a good sign. Restaurant magazine recently featured two pages on this new venture, where I learnt that the co-owner, Russell Norman, was previously operations director of Caprice Holdings and the head chef had "a brief stint" at Bocca di Lupo. So far so good.

We eager four arrived at the restaurant, tucked away in a Soho side street almost opposite Bob Bob Ricard. It was dimly candle-lit (hence the lack of photos), absolutely packed and had quite a buzz. While checking in with the waitress, people walking in off the street were being turned away, so busy was the restaurant that night. The stripped down brickwork and brown paper menus developed the rustic theme Russell was clearly looking for. Service was youthful and friendly and the menu looked delicious. A different take on tapas. Our mouths were watering.

So we ordered a selection of plates - 3 or 4 per person seemed to be the done thing although no advice was offered by our waitress. We were intrigued by the pricing - some dishes seeming pretty reasonable but the turnip tops in particular stuck out as being very expensive at £5.80, the same price as the slow roast duck. We decided to order them, thinking they must be cooked in some spectacular, decadent fashion. We also ordered a selection of breads, seafood, meat and veg.

After quaffing a bit of reasonably priced Venetian wine, our waitress arrived with the pizzetta bianca. It was ok. The dough was thin and crisp, and the cheese and onion topping was, well, cheese and oniony. Not spectacular, but not horrendous either. An ok bar snack.

Next to arrive were the arancini, crisped golf balls of risotto stuffed with courgette and stringy cheese. I love risotto, I love cheese and I love crispy fried stuff. It doesn't seem like a difficult thing to get right. But these had absolutely no seasoning whatsoever. Faces were starting to fall around the table. Su Lin got out the salt shaker. We tried to keep our spirits up and held out hope for the next dishes.

We devoured plates of mussels & clams, slow roast duck with green peppercorns, black olives and tomatoes, pork belly with radicchio and hazelnuts, anchovy and chick pea crostini, cuttlefish in its ink, octopus salad, fennel with bobby beans and cobnuts. The duck was bland. The octopus was too salty. The mussels were not all open. The pork belly was just ok.

None of it was delicious, or even tasty for that matter, save the cuttlefish cooked in its own ink which was good. It was as if no-one in the kitchen was tasting the food, no love or care had gone into it. We were truly upset, Helen looked like she was going to cry. We wondered, charitably, if were choosing the wrong dishes, or if they were just having a bad night, but then half the menu can't be wrong - can it?

And then came the turnip tops. It's a real shame that the place was so dark that my pictures didn't come out, but try to imagine this: a small dish of bedraggled spinach. For £5.80. "Aren't turnip tops what you feed to sheep?", asked Su Lin. "Yes", we all agreed, "and they probably get more than one between four". It was truly shameful. The night will forever afterwards be known as Turnip-Top-Gate, if we can ever bear to speak of it.

So we got to the end of this mediocre spread and felt deeply disappointed and also pretty hungry.

Re-reading the Restaurant article today, I discovered that Polpo means Octopus. "The name has no significance at all", says Norman in his Restaurant interview, "it's just a very friendly word that you can't mispronounce." Sadly, the lack of substance seems to goes for the restaurant too - it's a great concept, superficially it's well executed - it looks good and it sounds good, the service is pleasant. But the food just doesn't match up.

Such a shame, we really wanted to love it but instead we ended up skipping dessert and topping up on ribs & wings at Bodeans. So Polpo, if you're listening, it's an easy fix - put some love into the food, season it and taste the blooming stuff before you serve it. All style and no substance does not a successful restaurant make.

UPDATE: Since we visited, the turnip tops have been reduced in price to £3.80
Polpo, 41 Beak St, London W1F 9SB

Polpo on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Farewell Floyd!

Keith floyd's lapin aux pruneaux

When James of Back to the Chopping Board and Julia of A Taste of Cherry Pie came up with the idea of a blogging event to honour Keith Floyd, I had to join in. 

Keith was an eccentric character who really put the fun into food, and my earliest memories of TV cookery were of him and his frequent "quick slurps" of wine whilst whipping up something homely and delicious.

I decided to adapt this delicious Lapin aux Pruneaux, because a boozy, slow cooked casserole is the sort of dish that really epitomised Floyd.

Lapin aux Pruneaux (Rabbit with prunes) - serves 4


600g diced rabbit
100g ready to eat stoned prunes
4 finely diced shallots
2 cloves crushed garlic
100g diced bacon
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup white wine
1 tbsp tomato puree
Fresh thyme
Oil/butter for frying
Seasoned flour for dusting

1. Lightly flour the rabbit pieces with seasoned flour.

2. Heat some butter and oil in a pan and fry the rabbit until browned on all sides.

3. In another pan, fry the bacon until golden.  Add the shallots and garlic, stir and fry gently until softened.

4. Add the prunes and white wine and then allow to simmer.

5. Add the tomato purée and stir in to the bacon, shallots, etc.

6. Add the chicken stock and bring to a simmer.

7. Add the rabbit pieces and thyme and simmer gently for about 40 minutes or until tender.  Add water if it starts to get too dry.

8. Season and serve.

Enjoy!  And don't forget to have a quick slurp while you're cooking...

The Princess

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Breakfast at Hunstrete House, nr Bath

Hunstrete House gardens

After a hearty lunch at the Hind's Head in Bray, we continued our drive down the M4.  Well, he drove and I slept - I was full of grouse and treacle tart after all.

Our destination for the weekend was Hunstrete House Hotel, a beautiful country pile with a 2 rosette restaurant, hidden away south-west of Bath.

Hunstrete House gardens

No dinner here for us, as we were off to a wedding for the evening, but I couldn't help noticing some interesting puddings like "deconstructed pimms" on the menu.

On our return late that evening we cosied up in the bar with a Baileys (me) and a Laphroaig (him).  It felt very Mitfordesque and grand, like staying with an ageing rich relation rather than at a hotel. 

Next day, we awoke bleary eyed and slightly hungover to the sight of herds of deer galloping past the window.  We eased ourselves from the four poster bed and dragged our weary limbs and throbbing heads down to breakfast. 

Hunstrete House breakfast menu

Hunstrete House

It was a grand affair with the usual fruit/cereal buffet and an impressive selction of cooked options, all based on local ingredients.  Service was high class, slightly on the slow side, but we were in no rush.

Hubby went for the full English, which went down very nicely.  In particular the "Saxon Splendour" pork sausage was firm and meaty, full of herby, porky goodness and not too much rusk.

I've had bacon, eggs, pancakes, maple syrup and blueberries in many combinations, but never all at once on the same plate.  It was glorious.  Rich egg, salty bacon, toothachingly sweet maply syrup and zingy blueberries with a crepe style pancake to mop it all up with. 

Hunstrete House breakfast

If that's not a hangover cure, then I don't know what is! 

Hunstrete House, Pensford, Nr. Bath BS39 4NS
01761 490 490

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Hind's Head

We had a long and dull drive down the M4 to Bristol on Saturday, and what better way to break the journey than by stopping for lunch in Bray?

The Hind's Head is a pub. Heston Blumenthal's pub to be precise. An expensive pub, but still just a pub. It is charming and quaint, with beams and smiley waitresses and awkward family gatherings and Japanese tourists and screaming babies. We were seated upstairs where we had a great view of the Range Rovers pulling up outside, the smart people coming inside and the slightly smarter people heading down the road to the Fat Duck.

Hind's Head blade of Scotch beef

We skipped starters as we had accidentally gone out for an impromptu tasting menu at the Dining Room the night before. Instead we dived straight in to mains of grouse (me) and blade of Scotch beef (him). We also ordered sides of the legendary triple cooked chips and the broccoli with anchovies and almonds.

Hind's Head grouse

The chips were divinely crunchy on the outside and velvety on the inside. I could have happily eaten the whole bowlful, but was forced to share. The broccoli was more bog standard, but being an anchovy freak, I still enjoyed it. My grouse was savoury and pink. I was particularly excited to find myself chewing on some real shot, proving that my bird was indeed a wild beast who had been gunned down in his prime.

Hind's Head treacle tart

Puddings were equally top notch pub fare. I tucked into treacle tart with a silky milk ice cream, while hubby tried his luck with quaking pudding, a quivering jelly/custard hybrid speckled with nutmeg and cinnamon.

Hind's Head quaking pudding

It's not the Fat Duck, but that's not really the point. It's great pub grub, service with a smile and well worth a detour if you're on the M4.

The Hind's Head, High Street, Bray SL6 2AB
Telephone: 01628 626151
Hinds Head on Urbanspoon